The Algiers Connection

Sofaine Laimeche's long friendship with a 9/11 suspect has put his future in America in doubt

Before Laimeche's trial in 2002, his Phoenix lawyer told the judge, "It just hits me that the reason we're here is the 9/11 incident."

Dahmani was arrested the same day as Laimeche, but in more dramatic fashion: The police pointed guns at him and his pregnant girlfriend in the parking lot of the couple's Scottsdale apartment complex. Dahmani was charged with 33 counts of forgery, perjury and identity theft.

A few weeks later, both Dahmani and Raissi were charged in Arizona with submitting a false application for political asylum for Dahmani. Raissi, who was stewing at the prison in England, was also charged with lying on an immigration form about his 1993 arrest and failing to list an old knee injury on a Federal Aviation Administration form.

Martha Strachan
Martha Strachan

In the midst of everything, Laimeche's family experienced its greatest tragedy.

On the morning of November 10, a rainstorm pummeled the Babel-Oued district, causing severe mudslides and floods. The city was a chaotic mess after the disaster, and Baya Laimeche, Sofiane's youngest sister, in her first year of college, was missing for two days. Laimeche's father, Mustafa, found her body at the morgue.

The authorities said she had been on a bus that was hit by raging water. Pretty, petite Baya, who was 20, apparently died of a heart attack before she would have drowned.

"It was so painful," Laimeche says, losing his voice. "One of the most painful things ever, when I heard about her dying."

Yet it helped put life in perspective. His legal problems seemed trivial by comparison.

"I have no more tears," he says.

Though it could be argued that his case is an example of selective prosecution sparked by a terrorism investigation (in fact, that's exactly what Laimeche's attorney argued in court) Laimeche isn't bitter about his treatment by U.S. authorities. He's not asking for money or an apology.

He just wants to keep living here.

He would like legal status so he can visit his family and friends in Algiers — with the assurance that he can return to Phoenix.

His wife is going to Algeria this month with the children. Sofiane will stay here.

The immigration agency tells New Times that Laimeche still has conditional green card status (even if he doesn't possess the actual card). He can keep working legally pending the approval of his petition for citizenship based on his marriage, says ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack.

If he wants to leave the country, though, he'll have to get special travel documents, she says.

Probably not a good idea.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, a separate agency from ICE, says Laimeche's petition (which he filed about six years ago) is pending.

Laimeche isn't surprised.

"They don't know what to do with me, I don't know what to do with them, so I just wait," he says.

Meanwhile, he wouldn't mind seeing his friend, Lotfi, absolved of any link to 9/11.

The accusations have destroyed Raissi's career as a pilot. He has been blacklisted by every airline. An arrest warrant from Arizona is, and will remain, active on the immigration and fraud charges, says Wyn Hornbuckle, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix.

Yet Raissi's a free man in England. He's allowed to travel to and from Algeria, where his case is seen as a major injustice.

While arguing that Raissi should be extradited to the United States, British prosecutors, acting on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, made extraordinary accusations against Raissi in court.

"He was a lead instructor for four of the pilots that were responsible for the hijackings," British prosecutor Arvinda Sambir told a judge in a hearing attended by eight FBI agents.

That bold allegation was not brought up again. In later proceedings, prosecutors dropped references to the other three hijacker-pilots and focused on a Raissi-Hanjour connection.

Other supposed facts mentioned in court were never supported. The government alleged it had a video of Raissi in a small plane with Hani Hanjour, but the other man turned out to be Raissi's cousin. Promised phone records of "regular" contact between Raissi and Hanjour were never produced.

Though it seemed likely that Hanjour and Raissi had trained on the Sawyer simulator at roughly the same time, prosecutors couldn't be sure this meant Raissi was in on the plot.

A British judge denied extradition on the minor charges. U.S. authorities said they would present evidence to get Raissi charged with conspiracy to murder, which would have been extraditable — but they never did.

The judge declared that no evidence existed that Raissi was a terrorist and freed him from Belmarsh.

Whether U.S. authorities still think Raissi had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks cannot be determined. Officials with the FBI, Justice Department, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona refused to comment on the issue.

In May 2002, the FBI's assistant director, John Collingwood, told CBS News that no one named in Williams' "Phoenix Memo" was connected to 9/11. Collingwood was responding to criticism that the agency had ignored its own warnings about an aviation-based terror attack and presumably could have been trying to save face. Collingwood didn't return calls to New Times.

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